In less than a year, François Legault launched a coalition movement, converted it into a political party, orchestrated the takeover of a rival and is poised to watch his caucus make a grand entrance into the National Assembly.
Flanked by nine MNAs, Mr. Legault on Wednesday presided over the Coalition Avenir Quebec's first official caucus meeting, also attended by former federal and provincial Liberal organizers.
“We're going to change Quebec,” Mr. Legault said at the outset of the meeting.
Six of the caucus members were elected in 2008 under the Action démocratique du Québec banner, including Gérard Deltell, the former leader of the now disbanded party.
The other three caucus members came over from the Parti Québécois, which has been fraught for months with divisions and dissent over Pauline Marois' leadership. Mr. Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister who quit in 2009, remains unelected.
“We also have had discussions with some Quebec Liberal members,” Mr. Legault said, confirming plans to expand his caucus before the next election. “We are hoping that some of them will join us.”
Federal Liberals such as Brigitte Legault and Jean-François Del Torchio work for the party's organization, as do former provincial Liberals such as Mario Bertrand, who was late premier Robert Bourassa's chief of staff.
The challenge facing Mr. Legault until the election is to forge an efficient opposition party from the divergent group of federalists and sovereigntists. Federalists have found it easier to embrace Mr. Legault's vision, which maintains that Quebec's place is within Canada.
The PQ renegades have had more difficulty.
“Sovereignty is not the priority of Quebeckers,” PQ defector François Rebello explained. “I've made my decision and I will live by it.”
Mr. Legault reiterated the need for Quebec to set aside the federalist-sovereigntist divide and tackle issues such as health, education and the economy.
“We don't have any hidden agenda,” he said.
The CAQ leader said that, unlike the Liberals, who need to prove that federalism works, and the PQ, which must demonstrate that it doesn't, his party has no interest in the issue.
“We are all nationalists or autonomists, people for whom the only priority is Quebec and the superior interests of Quebec,” he said.
“Our objective is neither to sign the Canadian constitution nor is it to achieve sovereignty. We want Quebec to move forward.”
He said the coalition's demands for Ottawa will be part of the platform unveiled and debated at a founding convention in March.
The priority for Mr. Legault's new caucus will be to seek recognition in the National Assembly as an official party. Official status would bring an operating budget of at least $400,000 a year, and the opportunity to speak during Question Period. The PQ opposes the CAQ's request for recognition, which could lead to a confrontation when the National Assembly resumes on Feb. 14.
In meantime, the CAQ needs to raise money. From mid-November, 2011, when the party was officially created, until the end of December, Mr. Legault raised more than $415,000. But party insiders estimate at least $3-million will be needed to set up a solid organization, and about $3-million more to mount an election campaign.
While Mr. Legault still leads in public opinion polls, his numbers have dropped in recent weeks. Yet voters continue to say they see the CAQ as a credible alternative to Premier Jean Charest's Liberals, and that level of support poses a serious threat to the survival of the PQ. Mr. Legault expects his newly formed caucus divert attention from the weakened PQ in the National Assembly and begin an offensive against the Liberals ahead of an election he believes could be called as early as this spring.